Aug. 16, 2009

Self-Portrait as a Bear

by Donald Hall

Here is a fat animal, a bear
that is partly a dodo.
Ridiculous wings hang at his shoulders
as if they were collarbones
while he plods in the bad brickyards
at the edge of the city, smiling
and eating flowers. He eats them
because he loves them
because they are beautiful
because they love him.
It is eating flowers which makes him so fat.
He carries his huge stomach
over the gutters of damp leaves
in the parking lots in October,
but inside that paunch
he knows there are fields of lupine
and meadows of mustard and poppy.
He encloses sunshine.
Winds bend the flowers
in combers across the valley,
birds hang on the stiff wind,
at night there are showers, and the sun
lifts through a haze every morning
of the summer in the stomach.

"Self-Portrait as a Bear" by Donald Hall, from White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1964-2006. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of William Maxwell, (books by this author) born in Lincoln, Illinois (1908), a novelist, short-story writer, and an editor at The New Yorker magazine for 40 years, from the 1930s through the 1970s, during which time he published Frank O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Vladimir Nabokov, Alice Munro, John Cheever, and John Updike, and hundreds of others.

He lived in Lincoln for only 14 years, but later said that the town provided "three-quarters of the material I would need for the rest of my writing life." He once wrote about his hometown:
''No house, inside or out, was like any other house, and neither were the people who lived in them. Incandescent carbon lamps, suspended high over the intersections, lighted the way home. The streets were paved with brick, and elm trees met over them to provide a canopy of shade. There were hanging baskets of ferns and geraniums, sometimes with American flags, suspended from porch ceilings. The big beautiful white horses in the firehouse had to be exercised, and so on my way to school now and then I got to see the fire engine when nobody's house was on fire.''

But his childhood was far from idyllic. He said, "At a fairly early age, I was made aware of the fragility of human happiness." When he was 10, his mother died from the epidemic influenza, which she'd contracted while nine months pregnant. It was an event that he would return to again and again in his writing. It formed the basis for his second novel, They Came Like Swallows (1937). He wrote the opening chapter of the book, "Whose Angel Child," more than 100 times, often while weeping. He once wrote, "I couldn't understand how it had happened to us. It seemed like a mistake. And mistakes ought to be rectified, only this one couldn't be."

He published his first novel, Bright Center of Heaven (1934), and after getting a $200 advance for the second novel, he quit his teaching job of two years — in the midst of the Great Depression — and moved to New York figuring he'd get an editorial job for steady income.

He applied to The New Yorker, and they put him in the art department, where for $35 a week he sat in on editorial meetings and then told the artists what kinds of changes they should make. He moved to the fiction department, where it was also his job to edit poetry. During World War II, they decided they should have a separate poetry editor, and so he interviewed applicants. One young woman he interviewed was not cut out for the job — but, he noted, "She was very attractive, and I pursued the matter." He and the young woman, Emily Gilman Noyes, were married for 55 years and died within a week of each other in 2000. His last book, a collection of stories and fables called All the Days and Nights, he first started to work on, he said, "because my wife like to have me tell her stories when we were in bed in the dark before falling asleep."

At The New Yorker, Bill Maxwell, as he was known there, had a reputation for being a meticulous editor, strict, kind, helpful, and trustworthy. And also very tactful: He once took a train an hour and a half north of the city so that he could tell John Updike in person, with regrets, that the magazine was rejecting one of his stories. Last year, on the centenary of a man who lived to be nearly 92, the Library of America released a two- volume edition of William Maxwell's fiction.

Maxwell said, "Reading is rapture (or if it isn't, I put the book down meaning to go on with it later, and escape out the side door)."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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